Abdulhadi Alkhawaja taking part in a pro-democracy protest in February 2011
|Born||Abdulhadi Abdulla Hubail Alkhawaja
1 January 1962 (age 50)
|Residence||Kingdom of Bahrain|
|Occupation||Human rights defender|
|Children||Maryam and Zainab|
Abdulhadi Abdulla Hubail Alkhawaja (Arabic: عبد الهادي عبد الله حبيل الخواجة) is one of the most prominent Bahraini-Dane human rights activists. He is former president and co-founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), a nonprofit non-governmental organisation which works to promote human rights in Bahrain. He has held a number of positions and played various roles in regional and international human rights organizations.
Until February 2011 Abdulhadi Alkhawaja was the Middle East and North Africa Protection Coordinator with Front Line Defenders – the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. He is also a member of the International Advisory Network in the Business and Human Rights Resource Center chaired by Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Alkhawaja is a member of the Advisory Board of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies and also an expert adviser for and member of the coordinating committee of The Arab Group for Monitoring Media Performance monitoring the media in Bahrain and six other Arab countries. Alkhawaja was part of Amnesty international’s fact finding mission in Iraq. He has been a researcher and project consultant for Amnesty international and other international organizations. His human rights campaigning activities have been acknowledged by the International Conference of Human Rights Defenders in Dublin and he was named by the Arab Program for Human Rights Defenders as its Regional Activist of 2005.
In 2011 Abdulhadi Alkhawaja was arrested and tried as part of a campaign of repression by the Bahraini authorities following pro-democracy protests in the Bahraini uprising. Fears for his life were expressed following allegations of torture and sexual assault in detention. Alkhawaja was eventually sentenced on 22 June 2011, along with eight other activists, to life imprisonment. On 8 February 2012, he started an open-ended hunger strike until “freedom or death” protesting continuing detentions in Bahrain. As of 3 April 2012, Alkhawaja had been on hunger strike for 54 days.
After finishing high school in Bahrain in 1977, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja traveled to the UK to continue his further education. In 1979, he took part in student activities in London in reaction to demonstrations and arrests in Bahrain. Many students abroad, including Alkhawaja, were denied renewal of their passports and asked to return home. In the summer of 1980, after fellow students had been detained and interrogated under torture for their activities in London and his family’s house had been ransacked and searched, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, fearing detention if he went back to Bahrain, decided to remain abroad.
Civil and human rights activism in exile
In 1981 the Bahrain authorities staged a crackdown on government opponents, claiming to have uncovered a coup attempt by the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. Hundreds of civilians, mostly students, including minors, were detained and tortured. Seventy-three (73) detainees were tried by the notorious State Security Court (now abolished) on charges of membership of an illegal organization and attempting to use violence and given sentences of 7–25 years imprisonment.
Until 1989, Alkhawaja was a member of the Islamic Front and consequently an active member of the Committee to Defend Political Prisoners in Bahrain (CDPPB). During the 1980s and 1990s the Islamic Front was one of four main opposition groups operating in exile. (After 2002, the group operated in Bahrain as a registered political group under a new name, The Islamic Action Society (AMAL). Some members of the Islamic Front have been appointed to high ranking positions in Bahrain.) CDPPB was active in Damascus, London, Paris, and Geneva, working mainly on cases of arbitrary detention, torture, unfair trial, deprivation of nationality and coercive deportation, including the case of the 73 political prisoners.
In 1991, Alkhawaja was granted political asylum in Denmark. Following his resignation from the CDPPB and the Islamic Front in 1992, he and other Bahrainis living in exile in the Scandinavian countries and the UK founded the Bahrain Human Rights Organization (BHRO), based in Denmark.
During the period 1992–2001 BHRO gained respect for persistent, professional, and non-partisan activities at international level which contributed to the political changes that took place in Bahrain when the new ruler came to power in 1999. Alkhawaja became head of the BHRO, prior to returning to Bahrain in 2001 following a general amnesty.
Civil and human rights activism in Bahrain
Return to Bahrain
After 12 years in exile, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja returned to Bahrain in 1999 following wide ranging political reforms by the Bahraini government that allowed independent human rights groups to operate in Bahrain. Alkhawaja became one of the main founders and director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), which was officially registered in June 2002.
Alkhawaja was also one of the founders of the Bahrain Unemployment Committee, described as sharing a “similar confrontational strategy” with the Center. Many of the Committee’s members are involved in the Centre or the Haq Movement, including Abdul Wahhab Hussain.
Since his return Alkhawaja has been subjected to detention, unfair trial, and physical assaults as a result of his human rights activities. Well-documented physical assaults against him in March 2002 and June/July/September 2005 were not investigated despite pledges by UN bodies and international NGO’s.
On 25 September 2004 the BCHR was closed down and Alkhawaja was arrested a day after publicly criticizing the Prime Minister and the Bahraini regime for corruption and human rights abuses, using language which “the authorities easily construed as incitement of hatred”. Throughout the two months that he spent in prison while on trial, his supporters held widespread protests, both inside Bahrain and abroad. On the morning of 21 November, the court sentenced Alkhawaja to one year in prison, but later in the day it was announced that he had been given a Royal Pardon by the King and was released. The BCHR is still banned by the government, but has remained very active.
Unemployment protest crackdown
On 15 July 2005, police sought to prevent a peaceful demonstration by the Committee for the Unemployed against the government’s management of the unemployment situation and the state budget for 2005–2006. The authorities had reportedly been informed about the demonstration a week earlier. While protesters were still assembling, the security forces charged and violently dispersed the demonstration. A total of 32 people said to have required hospital treatment, including Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, Nabeel Rajab and labor rights activist Abbas al-`Umran.
On 2 February 2007, Alkhawaja was arrested again by the Bahraini authorities along with the Secretary General of the Bahraini Haq Movement pro-democracy organisation Hassan Mushaima and a third activist, Shaker Abdul-Hussein. Alkhawaja was charged with offences including “promoting change to the political system through illegitimate means” and “an intention to change the governing system of the country, circulating false information, insulting the king and inciting hatred against the regime”. The arrests were followed by public disturbances. Several hundred supporters who tried to hold a march in Jidhafs, on the outskirts of Manama, to demand the activists’ release clashed with authorities. the Haq Movement spokesman Abdul-Jalil Al-Singace reported that Special Forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the demonstrators, who originated from several villages west of the capital. The demonstrators dispersed but later regrouped.
Police blocked roads around the area. Black smoke could be seen rising from the area. Witnesses said the demonstrators set tires and garbage containers on fire.
The Al-Wefaq Society, the largest grouping in the Bahraini Parliament with 17 out of 40 seats, called for an immediate session of the National Assembly, claiming that the arrests threatened the credibility of the reform process. Al-Wefaq chief Sheikh Ali Salman criticized the arrests in his Friday sermon and attacked the authorities for their use of indiscriminate force. After being held and interrogated for 7 hours Alkhawaja, Hassan Mushaima and Shaker Abdul-Hussein were released on bail. Mushaima and Alkhawaja said that they believed that their release on bail was a result of the protests and of the strong reaction from opposition groups including the Al-Wefaq society, the country’s largest Shia opposition group. During a joint press conference with Alkhawaja, Mushaima said that Al-Wefaq’s response had surprised the authorities and affirmed opposition solidarity.
|Abdulhadi Alkhawaja speech (Arabic) in Manama on January 2009 on YouTube|
On 6 January 2009, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja was invited to make a speech during Ashura, the annual gathering commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the third historic Imam of Shia. During his speech, Alkhawaja referred openly to significant human rights violations in Bahrain including sectarian discrimination, corruption, plunder of public funds and land, arbitrary arrests, regular use of torture, unjust trials, denial of the rights of assembly and expression and the prosecution of human rights defenders and called for peaceful resistance to abuses by the ruling regime and civil disobedience.
On 21 January, the office of the Attorney General ordered Alkhawaja’s prosecution against under articles 29(2), 160, 165, and 168(1) of the Penal Code. He was charged with ‘propaganda to overthrow or change the political system by force’, ‘publicly instigating hatred and disrespect against the ruling regime’, and ‘willfully broadcasting false and malicious news, statements or rumours and spread provocative propaganda related to the internal affairs of the country that could disturb public security and cause damage to the public interest’. On 9 February, he was not allowed to leave Bahrain for a visit to Iraq on behalf of Front Line.
Threats and harassment
Abdulhadi Alkhawaja has been the subject of ongoing harassment including physical attacks and smear campaigns in the media.
On 19 September 2007, Alkhawaja was the principal target of a defamation campaign by the Bahraini Authorities aimed at discrediting the BCHR. He was accused of being connected with acts of violence in Bahrain during the 1980s and 1990s, of sympathizing with Iran and of coordinating with neo-conservatives in the United States. (The Bahraini authorities have a history of defaming activists who report on or publicly criticize high ranking officials and official policies, particularly when western media and international human rights organizations are involved. Allegations are published in the national public media to which activists are refused access to defend themselves.)
On 9 February 2010, Alkhawaja was removed from a Turkish Airlines flight at Bahrain International Airport as he was about to leave for Istanbul to attend a human rights conference. Following a subsequent alleged altercation with an airport official he was arrested and charged with “insulting” the official. Front Line believes that Alkhawaja has been targeted solely as a result of his legitimate work in the defence of human rights.
Since 10 March 2011, messages have been circulated via SMS and social networking sites calling for Alkhawaja, Mohammed Al-Maskati and Naji Fateel to be killed because of their involvement in explicitly peaceful protests calling for democratic and human rights reforms in Bahrain.
Involvement in the 2011 Bahraini uprising
In the early days of the Arab Spring Revolutions of 2011, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja led peaceful pro-democracy protests across the country and organised peaceful awareness-raising and human rights education activities for protesters.
In the period following attacks by Bahraini troops on protesters on 14 February, the Bahraini authorities allowed the protesters to continue a “festival-like” event at the Pearl Roundabout where a variety of groups came and shared their views. The Crown Prince promised a dialogue. Following a visit to Bahrain by Robert Gates, Defense Secretary of the United States, to discuss the situation.
|Abdulhadi Alkhawaja speech (Arabic) in Pearl roundabout on 27 February onYouTube|
After protesters entered the Financial Harbour, an area filled with financial exchanges and banks on 13 March, the government began a violent crackdown in retaliation. A few days later Hasan Mushaima and six other opposition activists were arrested.
On 9 April Alkhawaja was arrested. His daughter reported how up to 20 armed and masked policemen broke into their apartment in the middle of the night and attacked her father. They dragged him downstairs by the neck, leaving a trail of blood from injuries inflicted by five officers who refused to stop beating him despite his claims that he was unable to breathe. He was taken away unconscious. Alkhawaja’s two sons-in-law were detained as well. Mohammed Al-Maskati, President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYHRS), who had been monitoring human rights violations during the protests and was present in the house, was severely beaten during the raid but not arrested. Alkhawaja’s daughter, Zainab Alkhawaja, was assaulted when she attempted to intervene. The women present in the house were locked in a room and prevented from leaving. The family were not told where Alkhawaja had been taken or what he was accused of.
Sadly, all security apparatus in the Arab world have one thing in common – namely persecuting the thinkers and virtuous people based on their activism and work defending the rights of others. Among those is Abdulhadi, due to his defence of human rights activists.
Abdulhadi Alkhawaja has been held in detention in Bahrain since 9 April and has reportedly been subjected to physical and sexual torture. He required a 4 hour operation in a military hospital following injuries to his head. Nabeel Rajab, current president of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights reported that Alkhawaja’s jawbones had been smashed and he had four fractures in his face; he was due to undergo a mandibular bone graft (using bone from his skull).
At a hearing on 16 May the Judges refused to listen to his complaints of an attempted rape and again refused to order an investigation into torture. According to representatives of Alkhawaja’s family who were able to speak with him briefly he was only able to resist the attempt by four men to rape him by banging his already damaged head against a concrete floor. He’s referred to as “Case No. 8.” in the BICI report.
Trial and imprisonment
On 20 April 2011, Abdulhadi Al Khawaja was allowed to make a one-minute phone call to his wife. He informed her that he was supposed to appear before the Military Court at 8.00 am on 21 April. Before this call, Alkhawaja’s daughter had received a call from the military asking her to bring clothes for him. When his lawyers presented themselves before the Military Court, they were advised that the hearing was not going to take place that day. They were given no further information and were not allowed access to their client.
Eventually on 8 May, Alkhawaja was put on trial by a military court with 20 other Bahrainis on charges of “organizing and managing a terrorist organisation”, “attempt to overthrow the Government by force and in liaison with a terrorist organisation working for a foreign country” and the “collection of money for a terrorist group”. The group, which included other noted Bahraini human rights campaigners including Hasan Mushaima and Abduljalil al-Singace, clerics and members of political opposition groups, were tried under emergency legislation introduced following the protest demonstrations in February and March. With the exception of one Sunni, Ibrahim Sharif, all were members of Bahrain’s majority Shiacommunity.
On 22 June 2011, Alkhawaja and eight others were sentenced to life imprisonment. Zainab Alkhawaja, who attended the trial, “tweeted” that after the sentence was read, her father raised his fist and shouted “We shall continue on the path of peaceful resistance!”, before being bustled out of the court room. Alkhawaja’s appeal is due to be heard on 11 September, when it will take place before an ordinary criminal court, rather than a military court.
For the first time in Bahrain, Alkhawaja started an open-ended hunger strike starting on 8 February 2012 until “freedom or death” protesting continuing detentions. As of 15 March, he had lost more than 14kg, had problems talking and “could not stand up, even to perform his prayers,” his daughter Maryam said. He was taken to hospital several times where doctors failed to administer him an IV line due to his veins’ weak conditions, his family said. According to his wife, Alkhawja spends most of his time laying down, needs hot water to keep his body’s normal temperature and gets exhausted after 10-15 minutes of exposure to Sun light. As his health conditions kept declining, Alkhawaja refused medical examinations and threatened to stop drinking water. His deteriorating condition was confirmed by Danish diplomats who have made several visits to the prison he’s held in. “Abdulhadi thinks there is no legal reason to keep him in jail,” His lawyer, al-Jishi said who also filed a last chance appeal. “He won’t stop until they release him, or he will die inside,” he added.
The government didn’t allow independent activist examine Alkhawaja and has remained silent about his case. They claimed his condition was stable and medical care is being provided. They also said Alkhawaja wasn’t on a real hunger strike, because he was taking glucose and “other liquids”.
The trials and sentences have been criticised by governments and human rights organisations as unfair and politically-motivated. The spokesperson for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that there were serious concerns that the due process rights of the defendants, many of them well-known human rights defenders, had not been respected and the trials appeared to bear the marks of political persecution. The Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) called for an immediate cessation of trials of civilians in the Court of National Safety and the immediate release of all peaceful demonstrators arrested in the context of the February protest movement. The OHCHR had received “worrying” reports about the way up to 1,000 people reportedly remaining in detention were being treated and called on the Government to conduct an urgent independent investigation into allegations that four individuals had died in detention due to injuries resulting from severe torture.
The UK Foreign Office, noting that Ibrahim Sharif was a prominent moderate opposition politician who had been a constructive participant in Bahraini politics, expressed concern at the trial of civilians under martial law by tribunals chaired by a military judge, as well as reports of abuse in detention, lack of access to legal counsel and coerced confessions.
Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme director, Malcolm Smart, described the trials as patently unfair, emphasising inadequate investigation of claims of torture and the use of false confessions as evidence. Summing up the situation situation he said that
|“||These trials and convictions represent yet further evidence of the extent to which the rights to freedom of speech and assembly are now being denied in Bahrain. These 15 activists appear to have been sentenced to jail terms for doing no more than exercizing their legitimate right to demonstrate against the government. If this is correct and they have been convicted solely because of their peaceful anti-government activities, they are prisoners of conscience who should be released immediately and unconditionally. The manner in which these trials were conducted – with civilian defendants brought before a secretive military court from which international observers have been barred is highly alarming. It is indicative of the diminishing space for human rights in Bahrain right now.||”|
Amid his hunger strike, the Danish foreign minister met with Bahrain’s foreign minister in March 2012 and called for Alkhawaja’s immediate release. Front Line Defenders launched a campaign demanding his immediate release. Sahrawi organisations including human rights defender Aminatou Haidar expressed their solidarity and support. More than fifty human rights organization appealed to King of Bahrain to release Alkhawaja.
- Bahrain Centre for Human Rights
- 2011 Bahraini uprising
- 1990s Uprising in Bahrain
- Torture in Bahrain
- Islamic Action Society
- Nabeel Rajab
- Bobby Sands, of the 1981 Irish hunger strike
- Hana Shalabi
- Khader Adnan
- Maikel Nabil Sanad
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